When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, several Colorado businesses shifted operations to aid in the state’s response to the crisis.
With businesses reopening, many of those pandemic helpers have transitioned to a new normal, but others continue to sell their pandemic products alongside their usual goods — and might incorporate them into their models long-term.
Titan Robotics, an industrial 3D printer manufacturer that also offers printing services, shifted in mid-March from its normal 3D printing projects to produce face shields after learning about a local shortage of personal protective equipment.
Maddie Guillory, Titan’s chief marketing officer, said they teamed up with The Legacy Institute and motorcycle accessory manufacturing company MotoMinded, to print, cut and donate the shields to over 50 organizations, including county and city departments, nonprofits, nursing homes, first responders, homeless shelters, hospitals, early child care providers and dentists.
The Legacy Institute also paid for the material costs to produce the shields.
“We were printing the face shields, MotoMinded was cutting the shields, and then The Legacy Institute was taking all the orders from doctors and hospitals here in Colorado so they had one place to go to get the face shields delivered,” Guillory said.
“We really had a community response and we were so thrilled to be plugged in with these other companies and organizations to be as efficient as possible in getting these made quickly.”
In all, Guillory said Titan Robotics made 4,000 face shields as part of the effort, and also 3D printed about 1,000 head bands, which were needed to complete some shields due to an elastic shortage.
Doing so, Guillory said, required putting some of Titan Robotics’ other printing projects on hold.
“There were projects that got delayed as we refocused to make those parts, but our company and our mission is to provide solutions with industrial 3D printing, so we didn’t look at it from a standpoint of losing revenue,” Guillory said. “It was really an opportunity to help out our community, but it also demonstrated how this technology can really change how products are made.”
The company continued to make face shields for about two months, but shifted back to its normal operations as more traditional production lines caught up to the community’s need.
The projects that were delayed have since picked back up, Guillory said, and their venture into PPE production now serves as an example of the strength of their product.
“It wasn’t that we were doing this to get that attention, but we can now use our own efforts as a case study when we talk about how our 3D printers can be utilized by other companies,” Guillory said. “We walked the walk and talked the talk, so to speak. So we can use our efforts … to go to other companies and say, ‘This is how we utilized our own system to meet a need.’”
At the craft gin distillery Lee Spirits, co-owner Nick Lee said the early days of the pandemic in Colorado had the business’ owners feeling “a little bit helpless” as they pondered what they could do to improve the situation.
Lee said they soon realized that producing hand sanitizer — a commodity in high demand at the time — would be relatively simple, and would allow them to meet a need and give back to the community.
“We decided basically in the beginning that even if we didn’t make any money off of it, we wanted to do it to give something back to the community and contribute in whatever small way we could,” Lee said.
To get started, they researched Food and Drug Administration and World Health Organization guidelines for manufacturing hand sanitizer, secured the ingredients in bulk, then combined those ingredients in the right ratios in their distillery space before bottling and selling them.
“Aside from the fact we were making hand sanitizer instead of the spirits, our process was exactly the same,” Lee said. “We were able to just mix the ingredients together and bottle them on a mass scale using the resources we already had.”
Since then, Lee Spirits has manufactured over 1,000 gallons of hand sanitizer, donating some to the El Paso County Office of Emergency Management and selling some to local health care organizations, assisted living facilities and other companies.
And while their intent was never to generate revenue, Lee said, the pivot has helped them do just that — and has also enabled them to keep staff members employed while Lee Spirits’ tasting rooms were closed during Colorado’s stay-at-home and safer-at-home executive orders.
Both of Lee Spirits’ tasting rooms have since reopened, but they’re continuing to produce the hand sanitizer, Lee said, and will do so as long as necessary.
“The big stores now have their own supplies, but as long as our customers that are coming in still want [it] and have a need, we have no problem producing it as long as our supplies last,” Lee said. “We’d love to get to a place where we no longer have to meet that demand, where we go back to a place of normalcy — or whatever normal is going to look like — and can spend all of our time producing distilled spirits … but until that day, we will meet demand as necessary.”
In Pueblo, 3D cast and splint manufacturing company ActivArmor shifted to producing custom-fit, reusable face masks with a Bacterial Filtration Efficiency test score between 98.9 and 99.9 percent.
Engineer Diana Hall, ActivArmor’s founder and president, said the problem with traditional face masks is that they often don’t seal correctly, allowing particulates to bypass filters.
“The seal is what matters,” Hall said. “Everybody’s face is different and you can’t just have standard-sized masks where one size fits all. It doesn’t work like that to get that perfect seal.”
Hall came up with a prototype, tested it, patented her own high-quality filters and set about manufacturing the masks.
Because each unit is custom and requires 3D body imaging and custom fitting, production has been expensive, and those custom masks sell for $165.
But after analyzing the thousands of facial scans used to make the custom masks, Hall recently identified six size-and-shape combinations that will fit about 98 percent of adults.
ActivArmor is still offering the custom masks, but now has a more affordable option in the standardized sizes, which cost $45.
They’ve produced about 3,500 of the custom masks, and Hall said they anticipate selling far more of the standardized version. They currently have enough mask-making supplies to produce 140,000.
The pivot, Hall said, came at an opportune time for the company, as the pandemic had decimated sales of its normal 3D-printed casts and splints.
“A lot of the clinics had shut down with non-essential services and there weren’t as many [bone] fractures because people weren’t in sports and were staying quarantined,” Hall said. “And they were shutting down all elective surgeries, so I was down to one-third of my sales.”
In the first month of producing the masks, Hall said she tripled her normal gross revenue, bringing in more than $250,000.
But in order to produce the masks, she had to open a new warehouse and purchase new materials and equipment.
“I spent more than [$250,000] on overhead expenses to get everything up and running,” Hall said. “So I still didn’t run in the black. I ended up spending more than I made. However, the demand is great. It’s definitely kept me afloat.”
With so much invested in the endeavor, Hall said ideally the masks will be a lasting product line for ActivArmor — but whether the company continues to sell them will largely depend on the path of the virus and the recommendations of health organizations fighting it.
“The [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and WHO could come out tomorrow and say, ‘Never mind, we think nobody should be wearing masks,’ and then all of my demand drops to nothing,” Hall said.
“They’re changing their minds all the time. So whether or not schoolteachers are all going to have to wear them next year or not, is still all up in the air.
“So it’s hard for me to want to invest in a bunch of mask manufacturing equipment and staff, because I don’t want to have to lay everybody off in three months if this is all dead.”
But whether the mask-making continues or not, Hall said she believes the pandemic could have a positive impact on her flagship product.
“They’re the only casts or splints you can wear that you can still wash your hands, and COVID is not the only thing that’s going to come up like this,” Hall said. “People need to wash their hands, and it’s just ridiculous you have a cast that’s so archaic you can’t even do that. … So I’m hoping this brings some visibility to the value of my other product as well, longer term.”